A quick review of the various listservs sponsored by SAIS provides an interesting snapshot of the concerns of day-to-day operations. One contributor asks about the appropriate grade for school-sponsored dances. Another wonders about cellphone policies; another about athletic cut policies. Ideas are traded about whether or not to have bells between classes, about whether to initiate a school uniform, and about graduation ceremonies.
I was initially struck by the similarities from school to school and by how positive this exchange of ideas can be. I was also impressed by the attention paid to each phase of operations. I was reminded that decisions made and actions taken in schools have meaning and consequences. Each of them has the power either to support the school's mission or to represent a deviation from it. In the course of a school day, week, or year, everything potentially matters. The schedule makes a statement ... as does the dress code, the traditions, the ceremonies, the curricula, the choice of extracurricular offerings, grading practices, etc.
Conversations about strategic thinking usually revolve around discussions about the future: what will need to be done in five to ten years and what will be needed to accomplish it? But the truth is that educators (whether they are in the classroom or in the conference room) are making decisions every day which carry strategic significance. Today's decisions impact today's students, and those students represent a more powerful future for the school than the generations that have yet to be admitted.
In mission-driven schools, there is no decision (however trivial it may appear) that is not an opportunity to reflect that mission. Freedom to be intentional is both the strength and the daily challenge of independent schools. I applaud your attention to detail.
In this issue we recognize and congratulate the recipients of this year's Stephen P. Robinson Collaboration Grants. As was the case last year, the review committee faced a difficult challenge selecting from a host of impressive applications.
When the SAIS Board of Trustees created the grants two years ago, they wanted to emphasize the important role that collaboration needs to play in independent schools. It is widely understood that the ability to collaborate is an essential skill that today's students need to possess. And effective collaborations can also involve many other critical skills: communication, creative thinking, flexibility, teamwork, etc.
Progress is being made. Schools are finding ways to provide more opportunities for student collaboration in their classrooms and are developing strategies for evaluating student progress in this area.
Ironically, while schools may feel that the skill is vitally important for their students, those same institutions find it is often a challenge to develop their own abilities to collaborate with other institutions ... particularly other schools that may be primarily perceived as competitors. Independent schools, by their nature, are "independent" with their own unique missions and visions. They often prefer to "go it alone;" and though they may encourage students to "play well with others," their own efforts resemble "parallel play" at best. Like countries and political parties, schools may have difficulty working together. But in a world of limited resources and marketing challenges, collaborations may be the most cost-efficient ways to introduce new programs or to expand existing ones. Working with another school or with a local agency can potentially reap exponentially greater benefits than what a single school can achieve on its own.
At times, it makes sense for independent schools to be interdependent as well.
Several years ago, a friend told me that he thought that independent schools were "counter cultural." As a child of the '60s, I was at first puzzled by his remark. My college roommate was one of the celebrants at Woodstock; and though he was a graduate of a prestigious Northeastern preparatory school, I did not equate his behavior at that concert with the aspirations of his alma mater.
Times change, cultures shift, and so do definitions. And after reflection, I realized how true my friend's comment was.
In many ways, independent schools are swimming against a cultural current. And the current seems to be getting stronger. The disintegration of the family structure, the ebbing influence of religious institutions, and the pervasive influence of pop culture continue to define the world of Generation Z. In this milieu, the role of the school has never been more critical, nor have the demands placed on the schools ever been more extensive. For one-third of the day, five-sevenths of the week, three-fourths of the year, for 13 to 17 years, schools are the great and only common denominator for our youth, and therefore, our nation's future.
Thankfully, in a culture that seems increasingly divisive, your schools emphasize teamwork. Where distrust and anger seem sadly commonplace, you emphasize hope and respect. In a culture that is often quick to judge, you encourage patience and understanding. In a culture of the superficial, you offer depth. And in a world of sound bite exchanges, you embrace thoughtful debate. As odd as it may sound, you are "counter cultural."
I am confident that most (if not all) of you became educators because you believed that teaching students to think and to care was the best way to enhance their lives and to make the world better. It was and still is. As we begin 2016, keep swimming.
When I was young (I was once…really), there was a toy store in town that had a big sign announcing how many shopping days until Christmas. In those days, many businesses were closed on Sundays (“blue laws”), so it required some calculation on my part to determine how many days were truly left until Christmas. In any case, I remember the sense of anticipation, the feeling that every day that passed brought me closer to that event. My energies were focused on the future, not on the present.
The big day would arrive and quickly pass; and within a week, the sign at the toy store would start the countdown all over again. School calendars are a lot like that. We anticipate the beginning of school. We then mark the days until the first play or game or holiday, until the second semester, until the next play or game or holiday, until summer … And without thinking much about it, the days, months, and years pass quickly. By the time we reach one event, we are already looking toward the next. The “countdown” keeps resetting.
This time of year, the calendar is crammed with both professional and personal activities ... a long list that we are "checking twice." It is so easy to focus on getting to the end of that list and on meeting all of our upcoming responsibilities that we forget to appreciate the joy and excitement surrounding us.
So in a mindful spirit, let's pause, take a deep breath … or two … or three if needed. Let’s enjoy the gift of the present and celebrate the blessings of our calling.
Peace be with you in this special season.
Our thanks to all of you who attended the annual conference ... more than 300 of you representing 165 schools in 12 states, plus Canada and Mexico. Hopefully, you found it to be informative, engaging, and enjoyable. If you have not already, I encourage you to complete the post-conference survey. Your thoughts will be very helpful to us in planning the 2016 event.
One of the keynote speakers commented that while the SAIS conference is a large one, it retains the feel of a small one. From my perspective, that is a real positive and a nice reflection of the wonderful work the staff (particularly Lori and Anna) do in creating that sense of smallness. It is my hope that however large (in numbers) the conference may become, it will continue to feel like a family reunion ... preferably the reunion of a family that gets along well with each other.
As we gathered together, I was reminded of what a special group was assembled in that place: women and men not only devoted to education but also devoted to a vision of education that embraces the whole learner. However, I was also reminded of the challenges that all of our schools share in varying degrees: admissions, fundraising, governance, financial sustainability, strategic planning, etc. Since our association's goal is to support you in your mission, we remain committed to helping each of our member schools address these challenges. In a climate where governments are increasingly interested in regulating schools, we are committed to protecting our independence. In a field where teachers, administrators, and schools tend to operate in isolation, we are committed to connecting professionals for mutual benefit. And finally, in the rapidly changing world of research, we are committed to keeping you informed about the latest findings and trends.
It is just what families do for each other.
I hope that your school year has started smoothly and that you are enjoying the spirit of community. As students, parents, faculty, and staff return to our campuses, we are reminded that we are more than academic institutions; we truly are communities bound by our commitments to change lives and build futures. It is also the case that these communities are busy places ... very busy. I am confident that your days are already filled with classes, faculty meetings, assemblies, field trips, staff meetings, athletic contests, trustee meetings, parents' nights, alum gatherings, and more meetings. Racing (often ricocheting) between the demands on your time, it can be a challenge to set aside moments for personal reflection and professional renewal.
Nevertheless, I hope that you will take the time to join the SAIS community for our 2015 Annual Conference
, October 17-19, in Atlanta. It will be an excellent opportunity to learn from each other and from various experts in a wide variety of sessions, as well as a wonderful time to renew our associations with colleagues and friends. In addition to the impressive slate of conference speakers and presenters, I would also like to extend a special invitation to our heads of school and their board members for the Board/Head Retreat
on October 17, which will be led by our long-time friend and colleague, Pat Bassett.
I look forward to our time together.
For those of us in education, the new year starts in August and not in January. Now is the time of our new beginnings. Now is the time that we make our resolutions. Now is the time filled with expectation and excitement. Now is the time when all things are possible (at least until the first grading period). As in past years, we offer our guidance and encouragement to incoming students and cautiously hope for their enthusiastic response. That uncertainty is the challenge of change.
Late summer is our January, and our god Janus looks backward and forward too. Reflecting on the year past, the joys and the sadness, the dreams fulfilled and unfulfilled, we look forward to the promise of a new year and to the opportunity to equip the next generation for the future - and what an interesting future it will be.
For me it is a sobering thought that no student currently in an independent school has ever lived in a world without cell phones, social networking, search engines, and online shopping. For them, Google has always been a verb. For them, watching pictures of Pluto sent from a small satellite millions of miles away is just another item in today's news. The pace of change is staggering.
And we are also agents of that change. We want our students not only to adapt to change but also to understand, anticipate, manage, and shape the inevitable change that swirls around them. As educators, that is our gift to their future; that is our resolution for their new year.
It is also a time of change at SAIS. During my first week as president, the board began the development of a five-year strategic plan which you will be hearing about soon. Like you, I am excited about the year ahead and the challenges and opportunities that await.
To the work all of us are called to do, welcome back.